The neon image of a louche Lady Justice, in an electric blue robe and a hot pink mask, greets the audience at the Golden Theater as if the place were a strip joint for lawyers.
In a way it is, at least while “Prima Facie,” which opened on Sunday, is playing there. Over the course of the one-woman, 100-minute play, we watch a barrister — the story takes place in England — remove every piece of psychological armor from the women she cross-examines in sexual assault cases, then see the same armor stripped from her when she becomes a victim herself.
The play, by Suzie Miller, won all sorts of awards in Australia and Britain. It’s easy to see why. Its star, Jodie Comer, late of “Killing Eve,” gives a performance of tremendous skill and improbable stamina, especially considering it is her first stage appearance. The production, directed by Justin Martin, is chic and accessible, with design flourishes, by now de rigueur, to underline the idea that it is a Big Event. And the reform of sexual assault jurisprudence that the play advocates could hardly be more convincingly argued or worthy of our attention.
But the underlining and the advocacy do something odd to the drama: They make it disappear.
Not at first. When we meet Tessa Ensler she’s a complex and theatrical character, a “thoroughbred,” “primed for the race,” with “every muscle pumped.” She’s also, in Comer’s interpretation, funny, sexy and self-deflating, bloviating in bars and flirting with associates. She is not beneath the arrogance of pedigree: “Top law school, top city, top marks, top people.” When she bellows drunkenly that “innocent until proven guilty” is the bedrock of civilized society, you see that she also uses it as a free pass for her own dodgy behavior. At one point she throws a piece of trash into the audience.
Thoroughbred she may be, but we soon meet a different incarnation of Tessa: a refugee from the working class, never able to return to it comfortably. Visiting her chilly mother in Liverpool, she becomes a girl in want of kindness and not getting much. (Her older brother is violent.) The posh accent she uses in court seems to erode before our ears, revealing the peculiar early-Beatles twang of her (and Comer’s) native Scouse dialect. (“Says” is not pronounced “sez” but “saze.”) She dashes back to London before she can get hurt.
The dashing is not just Tessa’s M.O. but the production’s. With its expressionistic sound (lots of pumped-up heartbeats by Ben and Max Ringham) and sudden slashes of harsh light (by Natasha Chivers), Martin’s busy staging is at pains to help Comer fill the vast space alone. She doesn’t need it; she solves the one-actor problem with her own resourcefulness, handily playing all sides of conversations that sometimes involve several people. And when she must be both a third-person reporter of a remembered event and a first-person participant in it, she makes the echo meaningful by using it to specify the content. The laugh she lets out after saying “We laugh” is a very particular and complicated kind.
Still, Martin has her constantly running about, moving tables, jumping on those tables to declaim in court, shouting over music, fiddling with her clothing and juggling props. Some of this stage business helps provide character insight that might go missing in the absence of other actors: When approached by a senior trial lawyer interested in offering her a job, Tessa tries to hide her Victoria’s Secret shopping bag. But much of it feels pro forma.
In any case, the bustle comes to a halt halfway through. Now we meet a third Tessa, this one the victim of a rape she knows she will have trouble proving to the law’s satisfaction. She was drunk; she had previously consented to have sex with the man; she couldn’t shout no because he covered her mouth to the point that she could hardly breathe.
She now enters the legal system as a complainant, not a defender: “Same court, no armor,” she says. Comer’s portrayal of that defenselessness is devastating: Mousy and short-circuited, the gloss gone from her hair, she looks small in her clothes and alone in the world. Her voice has shriveled. Even Miriam Buether’s set — sky-high shelves of case files — abandons her, rising into the flies.
Yet this is also where the play abandons itself. Not its argument, of course. As Tessa suffers the same kind of cross-examination she has visited on other women in the name of “testing the case” impartially, it becomes painfully clear that finding truth, let alone justice, in such situations is all but impossible. More than that, the system of adjudicating consent is diabolical, a manmade trap to disable women from proving anything and thus, in effect, a second rape.
If only the play allowed us simply to feel this. But as Tessa speaks to the courtroom despite being warned by the judge to stop, Miller, the playwright, herself a former criminal defense lawyer, likewise breaks free from the dramatic frame to let her. The lights come up on the audience. The text, now delivered straight out, becomes an oration, a summation. For reasons that seem more wishful and political than characterological, Tessa gets her voice back.
One-person, multicharacter stories often fail to develop suspense and momentum, but Miller has structured this one precisely. Details we learn casually in the first half return menacingly in the second. The abandonment of that structure in the play’s final third is likewise precise, and many will value the disruption prima facie — at first glance.
But for me the change undid the previous work of emotional engagement in favor of flat-out persuasion on a subject with which few in the audience would be likely to disagree. As Tessa’s speech ran on, repeating ideas that had already been dramatized, I began to feel pummeled, as if by a politician.
Enlightening and enraging theatergoers in the hope of changing the world is not, of course, a violation of dramatic policy. That Tessa’s last name honors Eve Ensler, now known as V, ought to have been a clue to Miller’s intentions. V’s 1996 play “The Vagina Monologues” broke with dramatic forms (which, after all, were formalized and popularized by men) to make a difference well beyond them. I also thought of Larry Kramer, whose plays were pleas: agitprop and artistry pulped into something new. Thinking of works like theirs, and a singular performance like Comer’s, I won’t belabor the compromises of “Prima Facie.” Especially if, in the long run, it wins its case.
Through June 18 at the Golden Theater, Manhattan; primafacieplay.com. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.